If I’d taken the trouble to check out the author of this novel before picking it up to read, I probably would have decided not to do so. The man writes horror fiction, and I abhor horror fiction—in books, films, on television, or anywhere else, for that matter. Although The Last Astronaut does fit well within that genre, it’s also a classic First Contact novel. And it’s both unusually well written and tightly plotted. So I decided to swallow my disgust over the stomach-turning elements of this novel and read it through to the end. And that ending makes the whole thing hold together nicely.
The Chinese land on Mars, and America gives up on space
July fourth, 2034, was the worst day in Sally Jensen’s life. An astronaut, she was commanding the first US mission to Mars when a tragic accident led to the death of one of her three crew members. The public blamed Sally, condemning her to two decades as a pariah. She became “the woman who lost the second space race . . . After the Chinese landed on Mars, after America gave up on space . . .” Because opponents of the mission used the excuse to shut down NASA’s astronaut program. Funding, and all the attention, went instead to private companies such as KSpace. (The K seems to stand for Korea.) And when NASA unexpectedly calls Sally back into service to command a new mission, she finds herself in competition with a KSpace ship en route to the same destination. And it is that destination that holds the key to this tale.
The Last Astronaut by David Wellington (2019) 401 pages ★★★★☆
A strange interstellar object is heading straight for Earth
The year before Sally sets out on her second interplanetary mission, an astrophysicist at KSpace named Sunny Stevens had discovered a frightening anomaly in the heavens. Like the interstellar object in 2017 that astronomers named Oumuamua and designated 1I/2017U1, a huge unknown body is speeding through the solar system. But unlike its predecessor, the object dubbed 2I is heading straight toward Earth . . . and it’s accelerating. Sunny’s bosses at KSpace seemed unconcerned, so he turns instead to NASA. And the agency’s head of operations, Roy McAllister, takes Sunny’s finding very seriously indeed. It’s McAllister who persuades the powers-that-be to fund a new mission, and he turns to Sally—”the last astronaut”—to command the ship.
A classic First Contact novel that turns very ugly
When at length Sally and her three crewmates arrive at the massive object, they find that the KSpace ship has beaten them there. But there is no sign of any of the KSpace crew. In fear for their lives, Sally leads Sunny on an exploratory trip inside 2I . . . and everyone (including the reader) will be unhappy that she did.
Author David Wellington writes exceptionally well. His characters are credible, and he has mastered the art of building suspense. I just wish he would turn his talents away from blood and gore and fasten on more believable stories. There are so many more interesting ways to spin a tale of First Contact than Wellington has done with The Last Astronaut.
For further reading
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- The five best First Contact novels
- The ultimate guide to the all-time best science fiction novels;
- Great sci-fi novels reviewed: my top 10 (plus dozens of runners-up); and
- The top 10 dystopian novels reviewed here (plus dozens of others).
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